By SAMUEL ABT
Published: January 14, 2010
PARIS — As befits its status as a global power, France has an esteemed national bicycle Tour. Ditto Serbia, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Luxembourg. Among other European countries, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Denmark and Germany have national races. Turkey also has one, gorgeously named the International Tour of Civilizations.
In Asia, the roster includes Okinawa, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, India, China and the Philippines. In Africa, book now for the Tours of Rwanda, Eritrea, Gabon, Cameroon, Mali and Faso Burkina.
But on the official calendar of the International Cycling Union, which governs the sport, the Middle East is nearly a blank, its long and level sands stretching far away except for the Tours of Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Qatar.
The sultanate of Oman aims to expand that list. At a news conference at the Hôtel Meurice in Paris on Thursday, officials announced the first Tour of Oman, scheduled Feb. 14 through Feb. 19.
“A magnificent new destination,” judged Christian Prudhomme, the director of the Tour de France, whose owner, the Amaury Sport Organization, will handle the logistics of the Tour of Oman, as it does for the Tour of Qatar.
“The Middle East,” he continued, referring to the Tour of Qatar, now in its ninth edition, “has proved to be the ideal terrain for the start of the cycling season, its climate and geography being ideal for the competitors’ requirements at this time of year.” By that he meant that temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius, or 77 degrees Fahrenheit, would help the field of 128 riders on 16 teams break in slowly to the rigors of renewed competition.
The race will cover 687 kilometers, or 430 miles, in six daily stages — a reasonable stretch for muscles unaccustomed to exertion since October.
Even more alluring, Oman has mountains, some of them rising 600 meters, or 2,000 feet, above sea level, according to an Omani official. The country’s highest peak is Jebel Akhdar, “The Green Mountain,” whose summit lies just short of 3,000 meters. Qatar, whose race is scheduled Feb. 7 to Feb. 12, or two days before the start in Oman, is as flat as a plate.
“The climbs will be something different for the riders, a new challenge early in the season,” said Eddy Merckx, the Belgian champion. He explained that the teams in both races would be basically identical, with most of the field representing teams in the elite ProTour ranking.
Oman lies on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, bordering the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Its capital is Muscat. Its territory measures 309,500 square kilometers, or 119,500 square miles, and its inhabitants number 2.8 million. The main export is oil. Tourism is another source of revenue and the Tour of Oman is expected to help that, according to Sultan Hamdoon Al Harthi, the head of the Muscat Municipality and the Municipal Council.
“Everyone in Oman is excited and supportive,” he said. “We have a young population and the Tour will inspire them.”
The race will award €111,642, or $161, 880, in prizes with €9,200 going to the winner. The overall race budget, according to Merckx, is about €2 million.